Prouts start nonprofit to raise awareness, support survivors of sexual assault

  • Alex and Susan Prout address the media outside the New Hampshire Supreme Court earlier this month. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

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    Chessy Prout's memoir "I Have the Right To: A High School Survivor's Story of Sexual Assault, Justice, and Hope"

Monitor staff
Published: 9/27/2018 4:25:41 PM

With a close family friend and advocate inside a Pennsylvania courthouse Tuesday, Susan Prout stayed close to her phone to get live updates from inside the sentencing of Bill Cosby who was found guilty of drugging and raping a woman in 2004.

The next day, Susan was at her Washington, D.C. home as the nation awaited the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford who came forward to say U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh drunkenly forced himself on her at a high school party when she was 15. Susan’s cellphone buzzed intermittently as she shared messages with friends and loved ones in anticipation of the historic moment in which Ford would tell her story before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee – and the world.

“Watching these cases from decades ago makes it really clear to me how overdue these conversations are and how important it is to shine a light on the issue of sexual violence,” Susan, the mother of sexual assault survivor Chessy Prout, said by phone Wednesday afternoon.

For more than a year, Susan and her husband, Alex Prout, have been working to establish a nonprofit organization based in the nation’s capital with a mission of increasing awareness about high school sexual assault and creating a support network for victims to feel safe coming forward. Amid a backdrop of high-profile sexual assault cases capturing news headlines across the country, the Prouts’ “I Have The Right To” nonprofit organization got its stamp of approval from the government this week to officially begin its work.

“I Have The Right To” derives its name from a social media campaign launched by Chessy, in coordination with the national advocacy group PAVE (Promoting Awareness/Victim Empowerment), in August 2016. That month, Chessy went on national television to shed her anonymity as the survivor in the St. Paul’s rape case. She did so to destigmatize survivors of sexual assault and to urge other victims of what is a grossly under-reported crime to come forward – both goals of the family’s new organization.

“Our mission first and foremost is to shine a light on the problems that exist on campuses at St. Paul’s School and to note that everyone’s process of healing can be a little different,” Susan said. “Chessy’s certainly was a very unique one but it’s not for everyone. We want to remind everyone that you have a right to reclaim your voice however you want to do so.”

Chessy was a freshman at St. Paul’s School when she was sexually assaulted in May 2014 in a mechanical room on the Concord prep school’s campus. The high-profile trial of Owen Labrie garnered national and international media attention, as Chessy’s assault was part of a sexual conquest ritual known as the “Senior Salute,” in which senior boys would compete for dates – and often sex – with younger girls.

This winter, Chessy published her highly-anticipated memoir, I Have the Right To: A High School Survivor’s Story of Sexual Assault, Justice, and Hope, giving readers an unfiltered look into her assault, the criminal trial and her decision to go public. The book takes readers on an emotional journey through Prout’s childhood in Japan, her time at St. Paul’s and her advocacy work.

From the family’s Florida home, Chessy worked with co-author Jenn Abelson, a member of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team, on writing the book. As their daughter recounted her journey, Alex and Susan realized they, too, had so much to share with parents of high school sexual assault survivors.

“We wanted to save others from what we’d gone through,” Susan said. “It was probably more than two years before we spoke to another survivor’s family, and looking back on it now, it really shouldn’t have been that way. We would have appreciated so much the support of another family early on, to know how to navigate this and how best to support our daughter.”

Susan said the nonprofit organization formalizes much of the outreach and education the family has long engaged in. For example, in January 2017 Chessy spoke at the Washington Area Independent School Summit on Sexual Assault and Consent, hosted by Georgetown Day School in D.C., and Alex and Susan led a parent workshop at the National Organization for Victim Assistance’s annual conference that summer.

Additionally, Chessy has spoken throughout the United States and in Japan following the release of her memoir, which is now being incorporated into several high school’s health education curriculums, her mom said.

The Prouts say they will continue to network with sexual assault survivors at St. Paul’s, where former students dating back to 1948 have reported abuse by faculty and staff. The school has acknowledged a long-standing history of sexual misconduct at the institution, which is now under the oversight of the state attorney general’s office in lieu of criminal prosecution for child endangerment.

“If we’re going to shift the rape culture we feel our children have been harmed by it has to happen at all schools in the United States,” Susan said. “Our experience is with a private institution, but by starting our work at those schools we hope the message spreads.”

The Prouts will continue to partner with other organizations, including PAVE and Vital Voices, which seeks to empower women leaders, to lead change on a local, national and global scale.

The “I Have The Right To” website has resources for survivors, provides opportunities for them to share their stories and get connected with legal experts so they know their rights.

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, or on Twitter @_ADandrea.)

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